Last week's visits to Southern California by D.C. United, the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Portland Timbers provided occasion for a mini-reunion among Akron Zips. For Chivas USA defender Zarek Valentin, it was a chance to compare notes with a few other prized rookies produced by the college powerhouse.
Valentin, along with second-year Goats Blair Gavin and Ben Zemanski, was able to hang out with Vancouver midfielder Michael Nanchoff, D.C. United defenders Perry Kitchen and Chris Korb, and Portland midfielder Darlington Nagbe.
"There were a good, like, 10 of us in the L.A. area. So it was pretty cool," said Valentin, whom Chivas made the fourth overall selection in January's MLS SuperDraft. "We were all in one hotel room, just kind of laughing about old times and stuff."
New times, too. Valentin has played three positions on Chivas' backline. Kitchen, taken with the No. 3 overall pick, has been a revelation for D.C. United whether in central defense or at right back. Nagbe, the No. 2 selection, is considered can't-miss, although his young pro career has primarily been about rehabbing injuries. Nanchoff, the No. 8 pick, and Korb are starting to find their way with their new clubs.
Two more players from the Akron side that won the NCAA title last December also are in the league -- Houston defender Kofi Sarkodie was taken with the No. 7 pick, and San Jose midfielder Anthony Ampaipitakwong joined Korb as a second-round pick -- joining a group spearheaded by Seattle winger Steve Zakuani and Sporting Kansas City forward Teal Bunbury.
"It's nice to see that, and it's great to see [the guys from] our program, especially the guys playing," Valentin said. "You love to see two Akron guys in the D.C. game [Friday against the Galaxy], and you see Michael Nanchoff got into his first game -- we watched his touches online."
There's an oddity in all that Akron elegance: Four rookies among the Zips alums -- Valentin, Kitchen, Korb and Sarkodie -- have played at right back in MLS.
Valentin, 19, a center back at Akron, appears suited for the right-back slot, although Chivas also is grooming third-year midfielder Michael Lahoud for the position, too. Kitchen, 19, was the Zips' holding midfielder; he has played in the middle for D.C. but is the No. 1 right back on the club's depth chart. Sarkodie, 20, who was Akron's right back, is expected to contribute mightily at Houston, although his first-team time has been scant so far. Korb, 23, who played at left back and in the middle at Akron, was on the right for D.C. on Friday with Kitchen back in the middle. Valentin, Kitchen and Sarkodie have varying experience playing right back for U.S. youth national teams.
How does one college team produce, from the same class, four pro right backs?
"I have no clue," Valentin said. "I think it's just the way we were prepared as college player. Caleb [Porter, Akron's head coach] woked a lot on just general principles, no matter where we were [playing on the field]. ... It's just the way we were taught to play the game. Whenever we get into a set situation, we're all ready."
Valentin said Zakuani, who is out for the season with a shattered right leg, was on everyone's minds.
"We're still upset about that, of course, but he's recovering well ...," Valentin said. "Everyone is hoping and praying he gets back as soon as poss he can get back, at even a higher level that he's been at."